CHICAGO — This is the time of year when teams that have played themselves out of contention for the postseason try to find out stuff.
They try and find out who wants to play and who wants to go on vacation, who is beginning to feel fatigue and who remains fresh, or in the case of the Indians, whether Justin Masterson is destined to become a career starter or reliever.
The experiment began one appearance earlier than expected because of the deal that sent Carl Pavano to the Minnesota Twins. Instead of stretching out his arm with one more relief outing, Masterson started what turned into a 8-5 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
But don't blame Masterson for the result. In deference to the fact that he has not thrown more than three innings since his last of six starts for the Boston Red Sox, on May 17, he was assigned to pitch no more than four innings or throw more than 65 pitches against the White Sox.
"He was a little erratic early, but he didn't give into it," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. "His command got better as the game went on, and his stuff got better. Next time, he'll probably go 75 or 80 pitches."
Masterson stuck to his marching orders, working four innings (61 pitches) and giving up one run, four hits and one walk. When he left, the Tribe was ahead 4-1 and took a 5-1 lead in the top of the fifth.
"I asked to go back out there, but he said 61 was good enough," Masterson said. "I was happy with how I felt at the end. I still felt pretty strong."
Added Wedge, "Did I want to send him out there for one more, yeah. But I'm not going to put someone in harm's way."
Masterson hasn't been on the team long enough for Wedge to know what to expect from him.
"We're still trying to get a feel for him," Wedge said. "He's got great stuff. When he's on the plate, he can be as efficient as anybody. We're seeing that he fields his position well, and that's a help."
Sometimes even the most professional of observers aren't certain whether a pitcher's live arm and command of the strike zone are responsible for an opponent's ineffectiveness, or whether the rival batsmen just aren't hitting.
Saturday night, there wasn't much doubt. As soon as Masterson left the game, the White Sox began hammering the ball all around the ballpark or over the fence.
Tomo Ohka began the fifth having made several heroic and several pathetic appearances for the Tribe, both as a starter and reliever.
This time, he just didn't have it. After striking out the leadoff batter, Scott Podsednik, Ohka hit Gordon Beckham with a pitch then gave up four hits in a row, including a two-run homer to Jim Thome and a two-run double to Carlos Quentin, wiping out the Indians' lead.
The 440-foot drive was Thome's 562nd career home run, one shy of Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson, who ranks 12th on baseball's all-time list. The former Tribe slugger won't reach the coveted 600 plateau this year but he should make the grade in 2010.
"We let it slip away," Wedge said. "Ohka was not very good. He's gotten it done before, but he just has a bad game."
Even after Ohka's disappointing outing, the game was not lost. But Jess Todd, who replaced him, gave up the lead run in the sixth inning on a leadoff double by Dewayne Wise and Beckham's sacrifice fly.
Still only one run behind, the Tribe summoned Rafael Perez to hold the White Sox right there. Instead, he gave up a run in the seventh on Chris Getz's RBI single, making Masterson look better and better.
Jensen Lewis pitched the eighth and raised the hackles of the crowd by hitting Podsednik with a pitch then almost hitting Thome in the ankle. The Sox got even by scoring another run on Paul Konerko's RBI single.
The Indians' at-bats were distinguished mostly by two kinds of events: walks and strikeouts. White Sox pitchers issued eight walks but struck out 15. Four batters who drew walks eventually scored, but six batters whiffed with runners in scoring position.
"We scored five runs and we probably could have scored four or five more," Wedge said. "We've had our moments when we've had trouble putting the ball in play."
Asdrubal Cabrera had three singles, reached on a walk, stole a base, scored a run and drove in one. Jhonny Peralta was the RBI leader with a two-run double. Travis Hafner was the strikeout leader with four.